To Bot or Not To Bot…

So it seems we’re rehashing the old argument again: why send humans into space when robots can do it better, faster, safer? Well, the poetic answer is that human beings simply must explore, and that if Columbus had sent robots to do his work for him the world would be a poorer place to live, but the practical answer is that robots aren’t that capable yet, and by the time they are we might as well have gone ourselves. Plus, robots aren’t going to do us any good if we’re not out at some other star when the Sun goes kablooey.

But there are, of course, two sides to the issue, and the answer is somewhere in between.

For example, there are several immediately obvious problems with this article from the LA Times. For instance, spending space money on education and suchlike a) isn’t worth it, since the process is so incredibly expensive that doing it is prohibitive, and space doesn’t get that much money anyway, and b) it’s not going to earn us respect in the eyes of the world. We’ve tried that kind of thing. It’s not going to get us the kind of respect we want. Continuous, obvious achievement is. Nobody can sneer down their noses at a country with flags on Mars, not and get away with it anyway.

Next is the idea that robots are as capable as human beings. Sure they can see in infrared, but any geologist would tell you that there’s nothing like being there. Take Steve Squyres’ contribution to the NASA Administrator’s Symposium:

“And when I hear people point to Spirit and Opportunity and say that these are examples of why we don’t need to send humans to Mars, I get very upset. Because that’s not even the right discussion to be having. We must send humans to Mars. We can’t do it soon enough for me.”

And:

“But I love those machines. I miss them. I do. But they will never, ever have the capabilities that humans will have and I sure hope you send people soon.”

This is the man who leads the MER project–better known as Spirit and Opportunity, those rovers on Mars that have vastly outlasted their mission parameters.

So, Dr. Simon Ramo (the author of the LA Times piece) is a brilliant individual and contributor to the practice of engineering, but I don’t think he really knows what he’s talking about here. When it comes right down to it, the question of human beings in space isn’t about poetry or numbers on an accountant’s spreadsheet: it’s about the expansion and ascension of humanity. We must enter space, and we can’t do it with just our fleshy bodies against the firmament.

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